Frank Tallis | 'We deal with romance most frequently as comedy rather than high tragedy'

Frank Tallis | 'We deal with romance most frequently as comedy rather than high tragedy'

"Life is a precarious business and love is its essential ingredient." In The Incurable Romantic: And Other Unsettling Revelations, clinical psychologist Dr Frank Tallis tells 12 memorable tales of former patients whose wayward desires are in some sense making them lovesick. We meet a man who believes he visits prostitutes because he is possessed by a demon; another who is genuinely but desperately battling his sexual attraction to children. And we encounter an elderly widow who so yearns for her prodigious lost sex life with her recently deceased husband that she begins to hallucinate that he is standing by her bed. The Incurable Romantic is The Examined Life but with pierced and bleeding hearts.It’s a book for anyone who ever Googled an ex-lover, or stalked them on Facebook.

If the name Frank Tallis is familiar, it’s because he is also an established author of crime fiction, notably the Liebermann Papers series set in Vienna in 1902 and featuring sleuthing doctor and follower of Freud, Max Liebermann. He also writes supernatural and horror fiction under the name F R Tallis. While The Incurable Romantic is his first non-fiction book for the lay reader, both his fiction and non-fiction derive from similar preoccupations. "I’m just doing psychology in different ways, it’s as simple as that," he tells me when we meet at the office of his publisher Little, Brown. "The Incurable Romantic borrows heavily on the techniques I acquired writing fiction, because story also provides a compelling way to think about personal psychologies. The essential self consists of all our personal narratives linked together. So story is a useful concept in understanding people and how they understand themselves."

"For as long as I can remember, I have always been attracted to hinterlands, fringes, twilight places and oddity," Tallis writes in the introduction to The Incurable Romantic. I ask him to elaborate. "I suppose all psychiatrists and psychologists are, to an extent, interested in outsider psychology: what makes people different, what makes people stray from socially accepted norms. Initially my adolescent attraction to strangeness, to liminality, manifested itself in an interest in genre fiction— horror and sci-fi. But then it was channelled more productively through an education and clinical training."

Tallis’ path to becoming a doctor of strange love wasn’t straightforward, however. He grew up in a working-class family in Tottenham in the 1970s, and went to a secondary modern school that was deeply uninspiring. "I’d always been interested in doing something like psychology but I simply didn’t have the educational opportunities." For a few years after leaving school, he drifted, teaching piano to kids, and playing in a rock band. In the most personal chapter of The Incurable Romantic, he relates how he left London in his early 20s with his wife and son, to live in a village in the middle of nowhere, guided by what he calls "a set of the hippie-ish ideas of the time". It was, he says, "hopelessly naïve and hopelessly stupid". However, a terrifying encounter with a psychotic individual—vividly described in the aforementioned chapter—and the break-up of his first marriage shortly afterwards precipitated a return to education, and then to clinical training.

Glowing endorsement
Tallis subsequently worked as a psychotherapist, both in the NHS and with private patients, before becoming a full-time writer 10 years ago. Tallis credits the creative contribution of his editor Richard Beswick to the concept behind The Incurable Romantic. "Since reading Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love, Richard had always thought that conditions of longing and desire would make a very good subject for a set of case studies." Interestingly, the first story in the book concerns Megan, a barrister’s clerk in a hitherto happy marriage who falls instantly and irretrievably in love with her dentist, believing beyond all reason that he shares her feelings. It is an extremely rare but textbook case of the delusional condition known as De Clérambault’s syndrome, which features fictionally in Enduring Love. To Tallis’ delight, McEwan has provided a glowing endorsement for The Incurable Romantic, calling it a "brilliant book", which "leads us into the very heart of love itself".

While all the (carefully anonymised) case histories in the book are in themselves fascinating, and often very moving, Tallis has a broader agenda in bringing them to our attention. "Maladies of love, conditions of love and desire, these are things that aren’t commonly recognised in clinical practice. The idea that lovesickness may be a central component in mental illness sometimes surfaces but tends not to be part of the clinical vocabulary. I think that means we miss something essential." In eight years of clinical psychology training, Tallis received only one hour’s teaching on the subject of love.

His extensive observations of the heartaches that ail so many of us have also led him to take issue with many of our social ideas about love too. “We have a very peculiar attitude to it. The whole business of longing and desire is so central to our lives, and yet we talk about it in a sort of semi-humorous way. You see this also in a cultural sense. We deal with romance most frequently as comedy rather than high tragedy. And there’s also a kind of rather unpleasant sexism which says that women are interested in love, and men aren’t. The fact of the matter is that love affects both men and women. I’ve seen some spectacular examples of men destabilised by love."

During love
Instead of blithely buying Valentine’s cards, Tallis would like us to engage more meaningfully with what love is. It helps, he believes, if we deconstruct our desires a little in terms of evolutionary psychology, neurochemistry and the psychology, meaning and function of emotions. "Rather than just being carried away on a tsunami of emotion, we need to understand the reasons for what we’re feeling. And this applies particularly to romantic love. Romantic love is a semi-delusional system that is bound to end in tears, but curiously, it’s the belief system about love that we most celebrate. It comes with a package of semi-mystical ideas: love is fated; it’s your destiny; it’s in the stars. The person you love becomes the only person you can love, the only person who can make you happy. So then when the relationship breaks up, it’s hopeless.

"And yet still we want that romantic happy ending, even though it’s predicated on a set of delusional beliefs that ultimately end up in dissatisfaction, disappointment, and hopelessness." Because in order to buy into romantic love, we have to idealise someone by splitting them into good and bad parts, and then ignoring all the bad. Loving a real person with all their flaws, however difficult, is always preferable, counsels Tallis. "The more connected to reality you are, the more you are able to live with existential truths."

While the love maladies in The Incurable Romantic are undoubtedly extreme, they succeed in reminding us that there but for the tweak of a neurotransmitter go any of us. This, says Tallis, was deliberate. "I feel that it was only luck that meant I was the psychotherapist and my patient was my patient, and not the other way around. Being fortunate is something we don’t appreciate. When you’re not being pushed towards these extremities, you can say, ‘Oh, it won’t happen to me.’ But it might because love is a great leveller."

Falling in love is a combustible state that reproduces the symptoms of psychiatric illness, and when love goes wrong, the results can be fatal. Passions can become twisted and ugly.

So why do we joke about love?

Freud believed that we play down those things that make us most anxious. The destabilising nature of love reveals the fragility of the self; in a moment—in the time it takes for eyes to meet across a crowded room—we can lose ourselves. We can become obsessed and mad with desire. 

A whole life can be overturned and plunge into chaos. And when we consummate love we are humbled. As we explore each other’s orifices it is self-evident that we are just animals. We cannot sustain comforting illusions of superiority, cultivation or divinity while exchanging bodily fluids. The uncomfortable tension created by our contradictory natures— civilised and bestial—is unsettling. No wonder love and its febrile consequences make us anxious.